Hollanda Araştırma Enstitüsü  -  Nederlands Instituut in Turkije

Material semiotics of içki: taking a look at cultural practices of Istanbulites and affective enactment(s) of secular identities

Aslıhan Öztürk, University of Amsterdam

What does a group of people gathering around a staircase outside a bar street with beers bought from the tekel around the corner tell us about secular identity-making? Does one become secular being after clinging beers, or does one inhabit and become marked as secular in different ways? Would such subjectification tell us something about boundary making, and if so, would secularism be a fruitful framework to think this though? If not, what are other ways to understand boundary, space, and identity-ma(r)king? In times of heightened political tension and hyperinflation in Turkey, including an exponential rising of the ‘Special Consumption Tax’ on goods like cigarettes, beer, and wine, do these tensions and markings change or become do they become augmented?

In Turkey, and particularly in Istanbul, secularity or laiklik holds an explicitly non-neutral position, making it an interesting case study for exploring Charles Hirschkind's seminal essay, "Is There a Secular Body?" which proclaims secularity holds a taken-for-granted neutral position in the western context. Therefore, my research focuses on how Istanbulites are subjected to and engaging with secularity and how this secularity influences the creation and marking of boundaries. To investigate this, I conducted ethnographic participant observation in spaces that are considered the most explicitly secular: nightlife in the neighborhoods of Beyoğlu and Kadıköy.

Alcohol, or içki, plays a central role in my research as it helps to complicate and de-naturalize the idea that objects like alcohol are neutral and stable. By using the analytic framework of material semiotics, I view alcohol as an actor that participates and influences, but also relationally changes as a marker over time and throughout history. This approach aligns with my goal of destabilizing secularism as a supposedly neutral form of "being" and questioning concepts and objects that are often taken for granted. Taken together with the affects of secularism and secular subject-formation, I tackle a methodological as well as theoretical puzzle that brings together affect theory and material semiotics to understand how an object like beer can become politicized, socialized, and a signifier for something way larger—or, a non-neutral liquid.

During my stay, a tragedy struck with the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. Despite the difficulties this posed, I was fortunate to have the support of the team at the Netherlands Institute in Turkey (NIT), both professionally and personally. Their assistance made a significant impact on my fieldwork, as I was able to be more flexible with scheduling and stay close to my fieldsites. Even after I left, the feedback I received during my final research presentation was thoughtful and critical, allowing me to engage further with these important questions. I am grateful to Fokke Gerritsen, Aysel Arsan, and everyone at ANAMED who made my stay memorable.